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The Ethics of Anonymous Hacktivism

Submitted by Jim Aune on February 3, 2012 - 9:04am

The Anonymous collective hacked the website of A3P, a neo-Nazi group, and claims the information there reveals deep ties to the Ron Paul campaign. A few questions for discussion: 1) Does the information actually reveal reciprocal ties between the two groups, or are things more ambiguous? 2) Anonymous's actions are clearly illegal, but are they in any clear sense ethical? What are the boundaries between investigative journalism and this sort of document dump?

Submitted by Brett Lunceford (not verified) on February 6, 2012 - 4:07pm.

I quite enjoyed Jim Brown's post as well, and I think that he is on to something. The question of the ethics of hacktivism is a messy one. These tactics are debated even within the hacker community. For example, the electrohippies staged a denial of service attack of the WTO that was opposed by Cult of the Dead Cow. However, CDC also created software such as Back Orifice and has been activly working to undermine the great firewall of China.

I am still on the fence about the issue of hacker break-ins. On one hand, they illustrate the inherent insecurity in electronic data systems. As Douglas Thomas notes, hackers recognize that all systems are insecure. As such, they demonstrate the dangers of data aggregation and lax security. In some ways the whole system is a city built on sand. I think that such illustrations of the potential pitfalls of the system shakes people from the “technological somnambulism” described by Langdon Winner, in which people cede their agency to technological systems. However, when people awake they are not so much enlightened as angered to have been awakened from the dream of security.

However, there is another view that I am increasingly sympathetic to, which is the question of who watches the watcher? The Bush administration was quite well known for classifying information under the guise of national security. Even the Obama administration has been known to stonewall in the face of FOIA requests. The level of secrecy seems only to increase as more information is collected.

But data aggregation is not merely the province of the state. Few recognize just how much data has been collected on them individually. When I worked for Excite@Home (cable internet ISP), we owned MatchLogic, which one person described as Big Brother Online. Their goal was to target advertising. This was long before Google and Facebook had been taken to task over such activities, back in the late 90s.

So I find that some transparency can be good and I, in some ways, appreciate such data dumps. To quote anti-terrorism hawks, “if you don’t have anything to hide, you should have nothing to worry about.”

Submitted by Jim Brown on February 3, 2012 - 7:44pm.

I wish I had time to write more, but I'm on baby duty. For what it's worth, I wrote a little something awhile back about the question of ethics and hacking over on my blog:

Submitted by Adria on February 6, 2012 - 10:27am.

Jim B: I LOVE your blog post on this! Thank you for sharing and posing some provocative thinking. Please allow me to share a bit to tempt others, if they have not done so already, check out your entire post:

"What are the ethics of carrying out the hack instead of pointing to the problem? What are the implications of performing the possible instead of simply raising the question and calling for discussion?

My own answer (or, at least, my answer as of today) is two-fold. First, I don’t see hacks or exploits as necessarily more or less ethical. Instead, I see them as raising difficult and ultimately unanswerable ethical questions. Who is responsible for the release of private customer data? The bank that had lax security? The hackers that took advantage of a gap in that security? The customers who trusted a corporation with their information? The lawmakers that failed to institute rigid network security regulations? The designers of the various network security protocols being used by the bank? The hacker becomes the scapegoat in these situations. But hacking points to and demonstrates a problem that might not otherwise be taken seriously. This at least suggests the possibility that the hack is a legitimate ethical response...

If networked environments are defined by a relation to various others, then hospitality will continue to present us with ethical predicaments. The hacker’s approach to this predicament is to perform the possible via the exploit. This may or may not be a preferable response in various rhetorical situations, but it can’t just be dismissed in the name of a rational discussion."

Submitted by Lucas Logan (not verified) on February 3, 2012 - 4:49pm.

As for the first question, I'm not sure if the leak sheds any more light on Ron Paul's activities than what we already knew. He's been on record as refusing to return money to hate groups. Somehow, not condemning the Klan or neo-Nazis when they support you has something to do with "freedom." It's impossible to imagine that even in this cesspool of a GOP, Romney or Newt could get away with posing with a Grand Wizard, but Paul's supporters won't care. They'll buy into his line that it's not Paul's duty to impose on the views of others or will come out with the Andrew Sullivan notion that Paul is "pure of heart" and isn't as much of a bigot as the other candidates because he's against the drug war.

The anonymous attack leaves us where we were before: With clear knowledge that Paul has coordinated with and been supported by White Supremacists, but with no evidence of Paul himself saying anything explicitly racist.

As for Anonymous and ethics, I think it just depends on your views on vigilantism and the law. I think that going after Scientology or HB Gary are positives, and that more destructive behavior like DDOS attacks on VISA, the DOJ or Sony aren't necessarily constructive but could likely contribute to the greater good. On the other hand, the 4Chan-esque cyberbullying they've been accused of in the past is ugly.

It's hard to single out Anonymous without also discussing 4Chan, The Pirate Bay, The Pirate Party, Wikileaks and more sophisticated or traditional hackers/crackers, and I'm not sure that you can identify ethics within the whole mess until you can draw categorical separations. Strangelove touches on a lot of these issues in Empire of the Mind, but he can be a bit deterministic in his presentation.

(As an aside, gjc's contribution here reminds me of that scene in Cryptonomicon where the programming expert is having dinner with academics discussing the "Information Superhighway.")

Submitted by mercieca on February 3, 2012 - 12:46pm.

HuffPo has a two part series on Anonymous this week, which could be useful for thinking about these questions:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Submitted by Adria on February 3, 2012 - 11:06am.

Given Anonymous is reported to have no leadership, I don't know why we can't treat it like any other new social movement--there are tactics (although I think they despise that word) that are debatable within the group itself (some of this is the division between hacking and cracking GJC refers to above). I think Anonymous is fascinating in its originally stated efforts to make information free as well as to understand the Internet as public space similar to that of the streets.

There are unintended consequences of every social movement, and given the loose organization of Anonymous, I think we're likely to see more of that in this particular (hack)tivism. I wouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water, though, given the troublesome terrain of the Internet in protest/free speech studies.

Have you seen the trailer for the new documentary on Anonymous?

Submitted by gjc (not verified) on February 3, 2012 - 9:20am.

First, I'd much prefer the media learn the differences between hacking and cracking, but the distinctions have been blurred for so long that it's likely a lost cause.

I do believe there are ethics in hacking, and what we've taken to calling "Pen testing" (penetration testing for security) is a reasonable example. That, however, has been prosecuted when it wasn't pre-authorized, such preauthorization making its use of questionable value overall (if you know they're coming, you make additional preparation to thwart the bad guys).

However, from a social perspective, perhaps there is an ethical view that could support cracking someone's site and email to discover illicit ties, or illegal activities. If this were done under court order, in the US, it'd be legal, and generally the results wouldn't be revealed unless taken to prosecution. In other countries, the rules vary. That, however, doesn't mitigate what Anonymous did, as their approach has generally been considered illegal wherever they've hit.

My real question from a social perspective is whether they hacked, and then simply reported, with recovered data, or if they either embellished or invented data for the purpose of a smear campaign.If the former, and in a social-"responsibility" context, then perhaps their actions have some form of justification; if the latter, they are somewhat worse than suspect, and Anonymous' reputation should suffer again.

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